The tall kid riding his bike around San Diego's Serra Mesa neighborhood in the 1960s, wearing a swami's turban and from time to time packing a bag of firecrackers and M-80s, might have seemed a little sketchy, but Richard Alf had to craft his own entrepreneurship-studies program back then.
Alf, at 17, was the co-founder, bankroller, and organizing genius behind Comic-Con, the comic-book fest that since 1970 has morphed into an
annual gathering for just about every nerd-embraced entertainment genre there is. The show attracts some 130,000 fans to San Diego each year. It's where Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Angelina Jolie (Lara Croft), and Matt Groening (need you ask?) meet their most ardent fans, many in costume.
Alf died January 4 of pancreatic cancer. He was 59 and had earlier agreed to donate his Comic-Con papers and memorabilia to San Diego State University. Lynn Hawkes, special projects officer for the school's library, says the papers will help entrepreneurship students understand what a bootstrapping start-up is all about.
Indeed. Alf, who grew to be 6-foot-6, began by selling firecrackers and such to neighborhood kids. One kid, grown addicted to the little explosions, ran out of cash, so he began trading his large comic-book collection to Alf. That was the start. Alf assembled some 20,000 comics.
While other kids bought and sold locally, Alf went national. His grandfather, photographed in turban as Yogi Alpha in Modern Mechanix magazine ads in the 1930s, had peddled spiritual advice, and he passed on his mail-order acumen-and a turban-to young Alf.
Alf met Sheldon Dorf (better than twice his age, at 36) through a fellow comics dealer. Alf was impressed to hear that Dorf had organized a comic-book convention in Detroit. They agreed to do one in San Diego. Alf's comic-trading business was quite profitable, so he single-handedly financed the first few Comic-Cons. Later, he had the foresight to broaden Comic-Con, recruiting fans of science fiction, Tolkien fantasy, and more.
Alf might have become wealthy but for an impulsive and not particularly characteristic decision: He agreed with Dorf that their business should be a nonprofit. (Doing so made it possible to get Ray Bradbury to appear at the first convention, no charge.)
Other comics lovers eventually set up other Comic-Cons in other cities. But the original remains the biggest. Alf drifted away from Comic-Con after a few years, opened a comic-book store in San Diego, and later supported himself as a day trader. Truth was, he had peaked as an entrepreneur by age 20.